Using over twelve thousand previously classified documents made available through the Freedom of Information Act, David Cunningham uncovers the riveting inside story of the FBI's attempts to neutralize political targets on both the Right and the Left during the 1960s. Examining the FBI's infamous counterintelligence programs (COINTELPROs) against suspected communists, civil rights and black power advocates, Klan adherents, and antiwar activists, he questions whether such actions were aberrations or are evidence of the bureau's ongoing mission to restrict citizens' right to engage in legal forms of political dissent. At a time of heightened concerns about domestic security, with the FBI's license to spy on U.S. citizens expanded to a historic degree, the question becomes an urgent one. This book supplies readers with insights and information vital to a meaningful assessment of the current situation.
There's Something Happening Here looks inside the FBI's COINTELPROs against white hate groups and the New Left to explore how agents dealt with the hundreds of individuals and organizations labeled as subversive threats. Rather than reducing these activities to a product of the idiosyncratic concerns of longtime director J. Edgar Hoover, Cunningham focuses on the complex organizational dynamics that generated literally thousands of COINTELPRO actions. His account shows how--and why--the inner workings of the programs led to outcomes that often seemed to lack any overriding logic; it also examines the impact the bureau's massive campaign of repression had on its targets. The lessons of this era have considerable relevance today, and Cunningham extends his analysis to the FBI's often controversial recent actions to map the influence of the COINTELPRO legacy on contemporary debates over national security and civil liberties.
There’s Something Happening Here The New Left, the Klan, and FBI Counterintelligence
Counterintelligence Activities and the FBIAt the beginning of the twentieth century, the U.S. Department of Justice—the parent agency of what would later become the Federal Bureau of Investigation—was perhaps best known for its inability to effectively undertake any investigations at all. In a popular anecdote from those early days (the department had been created in 1870), a wealthy family requested that the attorney general track down their kidnapped daughter, only to be met with the reply that he would be happy to help if the family might supply "the names of the parties holding your daughter in bondage, the particular place, and the names of witnesses by whom the facts can be proved."1 Such ineffectiveness had reached new heights by 1908: during the first two decades of its existence, the Justice Department farmed out its investigative work, with considerable success, to U.S. marshals employing locally recruited posses and private detective agencies.2 In 1892, however, such practices were outlawed as a conflict of interest, and with the option of using this skilled outside help removed, a patchwork of agents from various government agencies—including the Customs Bureau, Department of the Interior, and Secret Service—were employed to investigate a wide range of crimes.
In the absence of easily obtainable evidence, this system led to the department's do-it-yourself investigative reputation, and its obvious ineffectiveness prompted Attorney General Charles J. Bonaparte (whose great uncle, incidentally, was Napoleon) to ask Congress in 1908 to authorize the establishment of "a small carefully selected and experienced force" to head investigations within the Justice Department.3 Congress's reply was curious: it was unresponsive to Bonaparte's request and instead passed an amendment prohibiting the Justice Department from doing what, to that point, had been commonplace—using Secret Service personnel for the bulk of its investigative work. (The curiousness of this policy was likely related to the indictment of two Oregon congressmen in a land fraud case cracked by Secret Service agents.4) Denied a skilled workforce but undaunted by Congress's refusal to formally authorize an investigative department, Bonaparte went ahead and hired thirty-four former Secret Service and Treasury agents to serve as special agents working on investigative matters within the Department of Justice.5 He was able to somewhat ease Congress's concern that a federal investigative body was prone to abuse its power by recommending that these agents deal exclusively with violations of antitrust and interstate commerce laws—thus placing the investigation of political beliefs and affiliations beyond their purview—and that they report directly to the attorney general.6 Reassured by these constraints, the House Appropriations Committee recommended that this federal investigative body be funded, allowing George W. Wickersham (newly elected president William Howard Taft's attorney general) to officially establish the unit as the Bureau of Investigation on March 16, 1909.
While the newly formed Bureau's "most significant work" at first involved fraudulent bankruptcies, impersonation of government officials, offenses against government property, and the like,7 it wasn't long before Bonaparte's self-imposed restrictions were being tested. In 1910 Congress passed the Mann Act (commonly known as the White Slave Traffic Act), which outlawed interstate transportation of women "for the purpose of prostitution and concubinage."8 As the act required the investigation of "every prostitute in every public house of ill fame," Bureau agents were soon busy doing so and in the process inevitably acquiring personal intelligence about the prostitutes' clients, many of whom were prominent individuals.9 Along with this expansion of agents' duties, the sheer scope of such an investigative task also required that the Bureau assign certain agents outside Washington, DC, and its first field office was established in Baltimore in 1911. By mid-century, fifty-seven other field offices would open throughout the nation, enabling the greatly expanded FBI to wield influence in most major metropolitan areas.
Meanwhile, in 1917 the United States entered World War I, spurring the growing public concern with alien subversive forces and providing the impetus for a new, Bureau-led campaign to track down those suspected of failing to register for the draft. Enlisting the help of the American Protective League (APL), a volunteer organization of "loyal citizens" devoted to assisting with wartime work—the Bureau initiated a series of "slacker raids" to round up the young draft dodgers. APL membership quickly grew to 250,000 with chapters across the country, and—wearing badges proclaiming themselves an "Auxiliary to the U.S. Department of Justice"—members worked with police and Bureau agents in a series of raids in May 1918 to track down anyone not possessing a draft card. Fewer than 1 percent of the thousands arrested were actually in violation of the draft; many were too old, young, or sick to serve, and many others were registered but happened not to have their draft cards with them at the time. But this didn't dissuade Bureau agents from repeating the raids four months later, with similar egregious results.10
Despite such inefficiency and the questionable effect on constitutional rights, the raid soon became the Bureau's tactic of choice to round up huge numbers of suspects in a short period of time. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution spawned a fear of "Reds" that quickly led to widespread paranoia, shared by members of Congress as well as the general public, that subversive Communists were in our midst.11 In 1918 Congress passed the Alien Act, designed to "exclude and expel" what members referred to as the "anarchistic classes," which included anyone who advocated the overthrow of the government or the unlawful destruction of property. As the act's definition of what actually made one an offender was vague, anyone who so much as dared to speak out against the government or the war effort was at risk of arrest and expulsion. The repressive potential of the Alien Act was realized in 1919, precipitated by a series of bombs exploding in various locations across the country, including the front of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer's Washington-area home. The bombings were quickly attributed to anarchist organizations (conveniently, anarchist pamphlets were scattered about many of the sites),12 leading Palmer to reorganize the Bureau and name former Secret Service director William J. Flynn as its head. Palmer anointed Flynn as the "greatest anarchist expert in the United States"13 and furthered the newly vitalized war on subversion by also creating a General Intelligence Division (GID) of the Bureau to deal with anti-radical activities. This division was headed by Assistant Attorney General Francis P. Garvan, who was directly assisted by the young lawyer who had been instrumental in convincing Palmer of the seriousness of the "radical menace," twenty-four-year-old John Edgar Hoover.
Within the first hundred days of its existence, the GID became a formidable intelligence-gathering machine, compiling personal histories on more than sixty thousand suspected radicals. Hoover, by now being groomed to head the GID, soon also gathered an index of over 150,000 names organized by category of radicalism as well as location. The sheer volume of radicalism that, according to Hoover and Palmer, lay just below the surface of American life was enough to persuade Congress to give an additional $1 million to the GID to "be expended largely in prosecution of the red element in this country, and running down the reds."14 And run down they were, in a series of events then referred to as the "Red raids"—later popularly termed the "Palmer Raids"—that focused on deporting subversive aliens (since aliens, according to Palmer, accounted for "90% of . . . Communist and radical agitation").15 The first target, raided on November 7, 1919, was the Federation of the Union of Russian Workers (URW), which yielded only forty-three deportations among the hundreds arrested.16 This raid was only a prelude of what was to come two months later, when the Bureau arrested between five thousand and ten thousand people in thirty-three cities, allegedly brutalizing many of the arrestees and holding them for long periods without arrest warrants.
Though the raids appeared to have run smoothly, the initial positive public reaction to the capture of thousands of radical aliens soon collapsed. Criticism of the actions by a few newspapers spread negative sentiments that reached a fever pitch after the National Public Government League (NPGL) published a pamphlet entitled "We the American People: Report upon the Illegal Practices of the United States Department of Justice," which documented the Bureau's questionable actions in detail. Both Palmer and Hoover vehemently defended the raids, but the majority of the cases against the aliens were dropped by Assistant Secretary of Labor Louis R. Post, who oversaw the deportation proceedings. After Post publicly criticized Palmer's actions, the attorney general struck back by accusing Post of "utterly nullify[ing] the purpose of Congress in passing the deportation statute,"17 and Hoover, in what would become a characteristic action, ordered Bureau agents to seek out information tying Post to the radical labor organization Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).18 Ultimately, many of the Bureau's questionable activities—including attempts by its informers within the Communist Party to arrange meetings on the night of the raids to "facilitate the making of arrests"19—were made public, and a 1921 Senate investigation supported Post's dismissal of the cases against most defendants.
The debacle that followed the Palmer Raids, as well as the fast-receding public concern with the threat posed by "Reds," ultimately destroyed A. Mitchell Palmer's designs on the Democratic presidential nomination in 1920. The controversy also tarnished the public image of the Bureau, though the effectiveness of both intelligence and counterintelligence to root out an "underground" threat was not lost on its agents. J. Edgar Hoover's role as the virtual architect of the raids left him in a vulnerable position within the Bureau, which in 1921 was facing the prospect of a serious reshuffling under the administration of newly elected president Warren G. Harding. William J. Burns was hired to replace the deposed director Flynn, and Hoover was enlisted to continue to run the GID. Over the next three years, the Bureau under Burns would engage in unprecedented levels of blatantly political (and clearly illegal) activities, including the burglarizing of several congressmen's offices in an attempt to short-circuit criticism of the Bureau and Harding's attorney general, Harry M. Daugherty.20 Burns also had agents infiltrate the ranks of railway unions that were striking to protest recent pay cuts. Ostensibly, the agents were searching for strikers in violation of the injunction the attorney general had won prohibiting any "acts or words" interfering with the operation of the railroad. In reality, however, their actions went much deeper: through information gathered by Bureau infiltrations, over a thousand unionists were ultimately arrested, and the strike was effectively broken.21 Hoover organized the successful infiltration of the resurgent Ku Klux Klan, using information gathered about Klan leader Edward Y. Clark's sexual misdeeds to convict him under the Mann Act. In addition, Hoover helped to defuse Montana senator Burton K. Wheeler's accusations of improprieties within the Department of Justice by having agents spy on him, ransack his office, attempt to entice him into a compromising situation with a woman, and finally provide fodder for the department to publicly accuse him of inappropriate business dealings.22
Not surprisingly, devoting its energies to such overtly political purposes eventually came back to haunt the Bureau, as Burns later was forced in a Senate committee hearing to publicly acknowledge the Bureau's actions in the Wheeler affair. Soon after, he was fired as director of the Bureau, and on May 10, 1924, J. Edgar Hoover took over the position on a provisional basis. Well aware of new attorney general Harlan Fiske Stone's wariness of the Bureau overstepping its bounds (Daugherty had been forced to resign after being implicated in the Teapot Dome scandal23), Hoover managed somehow to convince Stone that he was innocent of any past improprieties and even accepted the position only on the self-imposed condition that "the Bureau . . . be divorced from politics and not a be a catch-all for political hacks."24 Later that year, Hoover and Stone met with American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) representative Roger N. Baldwin. In another astounding turnaround from his past record and oft-stated concern with neutralizing radical elements, Hoover pledged to remove the Bureau from its previous countersubversive activities. His efforts were largely successful, as Baldwin left the meeting with a clear sense of the Hoover-led Bureau's newly fabricated mission:
The department dealing with radical activities has been entirely abolished. There is not a single man in the department especially assigned to that work. There are no more radical experts. The examination of radical magazines and the collection of data on radicals and radical organizations has been wholly discontinued by specific orders of the Attorney General. The Bureau is functioning only as an agency to investigate cases in which there is a probable violation of the federal law. Investigations of radicals are made for the Department of Labor on request, but none are undertaken on the initiative of the Bureau.25
While matters would eventually change and Hoover himself was still greatly concerned with radical subversion,26 Baldwin's impression of Bureau activities in the latter half of the 1920s was largely accurate. It appears that surveillance and informant activity was minimal at this point, and Bureau files on subversives were kept up-to-date largely through the "passive intelligence" strategy of relying on the agency's considerable network of outside sources.27 Widespread concern with the Red menace reared its head again by 1930, but Hoover, fearing his efforts to "clean up" the Bureau would be threatened, remained opposed to new legislation that would extend the Bureau's authority to engage in intelligence gathering and countersubversion. Instead, he continued to actively advise other federal and local law enforcement agencies about Communism and the danger posed by left-wing propaganda.
Organizationally, Hoover masterfully reinvented the Bureau. He added Federal to its name to establish a strong identity for the FBI independent of the Justice Department.28 He also instituted strict qualifications for agents (along with a school to train them), a generous salary structure, a merit-based promotion system, and strict behavioral standards for all FBI employees. After seven months, Attorney General Stone was sufficiently impressed with Hoover to make him permanent Director of the Bureau, stating that he had removed from the Bureau every man as to whose character there was any ground for suspicion [a reference to the fact that several agents during the Harding-Daugherty years had known criminal backgrounds]. He refused to yield to any kind of political pressure; he appointed to the Bureau men of intelligence and education, and strove to build up a morale such as should control such an organization. He withdrew it wholly from extra-legal activities and made it an efficient organization for investigation of criminal offenses against the United States.29
During the 1930s, Hoover spearheaded significant technical advances within the Bureau, including establishment of the world-class FBI crime laboratory and a standardized identification system using fingerprint records (the Bureau possessed 810,188 sets of fingerprints in its files at that time, a number that would grow to over 150,000,000 by the 1970s30). But perhaps Hoover's most significant accomplishment was to promote an image of the FBI as a "highly-successful crime-fighting machine, composed of honest and brave individuals, utterly committed to the preservation, protection, and embodiment of the lofty 'American ideals' of liberty and justice for all."31 These "honest and brave individuals" became known in pop culture as "G-men,"32 fighting the most sinister criminals of the day and making the nation safe for law-abiding citizens.
Beginning in 1930, Hoover spearheaded the release of the Uniform Crime Report, which compiled national statistics "to determine whether there is or is not a crime wave and whether crime is on the increase or decrease."33 Not coincidentally, the reports almost immediately documented what seemed to be an unprecedented crime wave, symbolized in the public eye by the well-publicized exploits of notorious gangsters such as John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly, Ma Barker, and Bonnie and Clyde. Because relatively few crimes fell under federal jurisdiction at this time, the Bureau generally pursued such criminals for violation of either the Mann Act or the Dyer Act, which forbade the transportation of a stolen motor vehicle across state lines. Kidnapping also became a federal offense after passage in 1932 of the "Lindbergh Kidnap Law," so named because it was enacted shortly after aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh's infant son was found dead after being taken from the family's New Jersey home. In spite of this narrow jurisdiction, however, the Bureau sought to build a reputation for fervently tracking down what it called "Public Enemy Number One," first personified by Chicago gangster John Dillinger. After an extended pursuit, Dillinger was shot and killed by Bureau agents in 1933.
It is important to realize that, at this point, neither the FBI nor its Director were on the public's radar screen. Hoover's Bureau would often be mistaken for an offshoot of the more familiar Secret Service; the writer of a 1933 Newsweek story, assuming readers wouldn't be familiar with the Director, referred to Hoover as "the one who is in the Department of Justice."34 The successful pursuit of Dillinger was important, but it took the release of the 1935 James Cagney film G-Men to make the Bureau an authentic American phenomenon. In the film, Cagney played "a young lawyer who joins the FBI when his law-school roommate is gunned down while on assignment for the Bureau."35 A gang of criminals then kidnaps Cagney's girlfriend, leading Cagney to (of course) track down the bad guys. The Bureau formally disavowed any connection to the movie—responding to fan mail with the stock "This Bureau did not cooperate in the production of G-Men, or in any way endorse this motion picture"36—but it soon realized the considerable benefits of romanticized popular appeal. Almost overnight, the FBI-gangster film became a genre unto itself: before the end of the year, no fewer than six other films featured the exploits of brave FBI agents. The motion picture tide was stemmed by legislation outlawing the production of violent gangster films, but the Bureau soon began endorsing radio shows, comic strips, and novels. Hoover effectively controlled the content of these productions through the use of "friendly" writers like Rex Collier, a Washington Star reporter who had penned blow-by-blow accounts of FBI cases as far back as 1929, and Courtney Ryley Cooper, a freelance fiction author specializing in crime stories.37 Soon, there were even "G-Men Clubs" organized around a pledge to uphold the law and aid in its enforcement whenever possible. You must agree to back the Government Men in all their activities—and disseminate public opinion opposed to the gangster and the racketeer. Members of the G-MEN CLUB are expected to learn all they can about Department of Justice Activities and spread this knowledge on to others—discouraging crime by emphasizing the modern, scientific, sure-fire methods of today's manhunters.38
Within a year of the release of G-Men, J. Edgar Hoover was a huge public figure, and he began living up to the image of heroic crime fighter. Smarting from an accusation by Senator Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee that Hoover himself had never made an arrest, the Director deliberately put himself in the field and in the line of fire, most notably during the 1936 arrest of Alvin Karpis, a member of the Ma Barker gang.39 Before the end of the decade, he also resumed the Bureau's earlier mission of detecting and monitoring subversive elements. The return to active political intelligence work was, in this case, largely a result of the Bureau's close relationship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt.40 In September 1936 Hoover instructed all field offices to obtain from all possible sources information concerning subversive activities being conducted in the United States by Communists, Fascisti, and representatives or advocates of other organizations or groups advocating the overthrow or replacement of the Government of the United States by illegal methods.41
The attorney general had directly authorized this action, and the president was well aware of its existence. In fact, as a response to growing political threats from both the right and left throughout the 1930s, the president authorized and even encouraged Hoover to initiate several intelligence activities, including a broad surveillance program. Among the targets were various civic associations that criticized Roosevelt's New Deal policies (including the Industrial Defense Association and Protestant War Veterans), populist Democratic senator Huey Long, individuals who sent critical telegrams to the White House, and an anti-Roosevelt congressional committee chaired by Texas representative Martin Dies that sought to root out Communists in government positions.42
In some cases, the Bureau's activities went beyond surveillance and information gathering; an extensive Internal Revenue Service investigation was opened in 1935 in an attempt to discredit Senator Long, and agents used trusted media contacts to sway public opinion against the Dies Committee's activities. These sorts of counterintelligence measures foreshadowed what was to come nearly two decades later with COINTELPRO. And prefiguring the atmosphere that would surround the Red Scare in the late 1940s, broad support within the executive branch was readily forthcoming, since allowing the FBI to root out Communist infiltrators through its established intelligence infrastructure seemed preferable to the witch-hunt strategy proposed by the Dies Committee. While FDR and the Bureau eventually lost their battle with Dies (whose delegation became the House Committee on Un-American Activities [HUAC] in 1945), the Bureau did come away with a considerable degree of autonomy in carrying out political investigations.43
Hoover's close relationship with FDR marked an emerging pattern in which the Bureau often sidestepped the attorney general, its nominal boss, and dealt directly with the White House. Working as an unchecked tool of the executive, of course, opened up the possibility that the FBI would engage in countersubversive policing beyond that required for the investigation of federal crimes. From a policy standpoint, the immediate precursor to the full-blown counterintelligence programs authorized in the 1950s was a decision made by FDR prior to the onset of World War II. The so-called "Brown Scare," fueled by a fear that domestic radicalism was somehow tied to the looming threat of Nazism and Fascism in Europe, provided an opportunity for Roosevelt to formalize the types of intelligence activities that Hoover had engaged in covertly since the mid-1930s. On September 6, 1939, the president made the following announcement designed to consolidate the nation's intelligence-gathering capabilities within the FBI:
The Attorney General has been requested by me to instruct the Federal Bureau of Investigation of the Department of Justice to take charge of investigative work in matters relating to espionage, sabotage, and violations of the neutrality regulations. . . . This task must be conducted in a comprehensive and effective manner on a national basis. . . . To this end I request all police officers, sheriffs, and other law enforcement officers in the United States promptly to turn over to the nearest representative of the Federal Bureau of Investigation any information obtained by them relating to espionage, sabotage, subversive activities and violations of the neutrality laws.44
Shortly after this announcement, in a hearing of the House Appropriations Committee, Hoover revealed that the Bureau had already "compiled extensive indices of individuals, groups, and organizations, engaged in . . . subversive activities, in espionage activities, or any activities that are possibly detrimental to the internal security of the United States."45 Though it was clear that this massive "compilation" must have occurred prior to Roosevelt's announcement in September, Hoover cited the president's orders as authorizing such actions. Hoover's interpretation of the president's orders as meaning that the FBI should investigate even propaganda "opposed to the American way of life" and individuals stirring up "class hatreds" made virtually every political group susceptible to FBI surveillance.46 And perhaps more significant, no external authorization would now be required for such action.
For the next several years, FBI activities against the Communist Party and other radical elements included wiretapping and bugging meeting sites, sending letters and making phone calls anonymously, planting false evidence, and engaging in evidence-gathering burglaries (referred to within the Bureau as "black bag jobs," since agents' burglary equipment was usually kept in small black bags).47 Later President Harry Truman reaffirmed the FBI's mission in such intelligence activities, publicly emphasizing in 1948 that Roosevelt's earlier directives "continue in full force and effect."48 Despite this initial support from the Democratic Truman White House, Hoover effectively broke with the administration after Truman signed an executive order instituting a loyalty program that placed certain types of FBI investigations under the auspices of the Civil Service Commission. Hoover signaled this break in a speech focusing on the seriousness of the Communist menace before the Republican-run House Committee on Un-American Activities (whose earlier incarnation, the Dies Committee, Hoover had opposed). Among other points, Hoover emphasized that "in 1917 when the Communists overthrew the Russian government there was one Communist for every 2,277 persons in Russia. In the United States today there is one Communist for every 1,814 persons in the country."49 Thereafter, against the wishes of President Truman, the Bureau generously shared information with HUAC, with intelligence data from its files serving as key evidence against various individuals suspected of Communist activity.50
But the Bureau's estrangement from the presidency, as well as its close cooperation with HUAC, effectively ended with the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. Prior to his inauguration, President-elect Eisenhower unambiguously sought to build a cooperative relationship with Hoover and quickly brought him into the executive fold. In Eisenhower's own words, he sought to "assure [Hoover] that I wanted him in government as long as I might be there and that in the performance of his duties he would have the complete support of my office."51 Eisenhower also appointed several former FBI agents to key State Department positions, and they quickly sought to expunge from the federal government any Communist-tinged "security risks." By the end of 1953, Eisenhower announced that 1,456 so-called "subversives" had been dismissed from their State Department jobs.52
Hoover repaid the president in 1954 by turning against the FBI's old friend and fellow Communist hunter Senator Joseph McCarthy. As chair of the HUAC Investigations Subcommittee, McCarthy had been rooting out thousands of alleged American Communists in various walks of public life. His attacks had grown to at least indirectly implicate Eisenhower's executive branch, as the Communists' ability to so effectively infiltrate public positions, in McCarthy's eyes, spoke volumes about the president's lack of concern about the Red menace. For a period, the political momentum of the HUAC hearings made it difficult for Eisenhower to respond to what he plainly saw as excessive zeal on the senator's part.
In April 1954 McCarthy continued his attack on the federal government by convening nationally televised subcommittee hearings against the Army, whose officials he accused of blocking efforts to root out subversive elements at the Signal Corps research center at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. During the ninth day of the hearings, McCarthy claimed to possess a "carbon copy" of a letter from Hoover to the Army warning them of potential security risks. After the Army's chief counsel objected to the introduction of the letter, Hoover himself denied that he had written it and conveniently obscured the fact that a memo (rather than a letter) from the Bureau had been composed on the same day. Hoover's unwillingness to clarify what was essentially a misunderstanding about the format of the communication between the Bureau and the Army embroiled McCarthy in a controversy that allowed Eisenhower the political leverage he needed to encourage McCarthy's censure.
The HUAC hearings, as a result, were soon taking a political beating, and Hoover saw his opening.53 The Bureau began effectively attacking the national leadership of the Communist Party through use of the Smith Act, which since 1940 had forbidden individuals from advocating the overthrow of the government by force or organizing or belonging to a group that had such a goal. Between 1953 and 1956 alone, Justice Department officials indicted forty-two party officials for violations of the act.54 The importance of the Smith Act was to some degree symbolic: although the indictments represented a tiny fraction of those whom the FBI surveilled and harassed during this period, the act's very existence provided political justification, and a clear rationale, for the Bureau's broad-based investigation of the party. But this key symbolic function was in serious danger by October 1955, when the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review a case based on a violation of the act. The issue before the Court concerned the type of evidence required for conviction—previously, prosecution required only evidence of revolutionary beliefs rather than engagement in particular actions. The Court was expected to rule that proof of "an actual plan for a violent revolution" would be required in future Smith Act cases, meaning that, though the final ruling wouldn't come until 1957, the Bureau's previous latitude in such matters was about to disappear.55
The demise of the Smith Act signaled a turning point within the FBI, which had depended upon the act to publicly justify its harassment of the Communist Party (CP). Hoover's reaction was decisive; a series of Bureau-run field conferences in 1956 yielded the development of a formal counterintelligence program against the CP. COINTELPRO-Communist Party, USA, as it was referred to within the Bureau, began on August 28, 1956, with the distribution of two separate memos to high-ranking Bureau officials. These memos acknowledged the FBI's previous activities against the party while broadening the scope and purpose of the campaign:
The Bureau has [previously] sought to capitalize on incidents involving the Party and its leaders in order to foster factionalism, bring the CP and its leaders into disrepute before the American public and cause confusion and dissatisfaction among rank-and-file members of the CP. Generally, the above action has constituted harrassment [sic] rather than disruption, since, for the most part, the Bureau has set up particular incidents, and the attack has been from the outside. At the present time, however, there is existing within the CP a situation . . . which is made to order for an all-out disruptive attack against the CP from within. In other words, the Bureau is in a position to initiate, on a broader scale than heretofore attempted, a counterintelligence program against the CP, not by harrassment from the outside, which might only serve to bring the various factions together, but by feeding and fostering from within the internal fight currently raging.56
The tone of the memo is telling, as it clearly underscores the fact that this new program was not unique in its goals. The memo did, however, overemphasize the tactical break from earlier programs: since the outset of the Eisenhower administration, internal disruption of the CPUSA had been carried out through the activities of the "Communist Infiltration" (COMINFIL) program, which attacked both the party's supposed infiltration of mainstream American institutions and its own internal infrastructure.57 Indeed, the central break signaled by the establishment of COINTELPRO was not the introduction of counterintelligence techniques, which had been used against the CPUSA for years, but instead the initiation of a formal program under which such actions were to be carried out in a nationally coordinated fashion.58
The introduction of COINTELPRO was notable for two additional reasons. First, it came at a time when the Communist Party was in a greatly weakened state. At the end of 1955 the party was reduced to twenty-two thousand members (less than one-fifth of its mid-1940s peak) and lacking clear leadership and direction.59 Given the demoralizing effect of Soviet leader Khrushchev's public acknowledgment in 1956 of the crimes of Stalin and the Soviet Union's attacks on both Poland and Hungary, any talk of socialist utopia had little possibility of gaining widespread appeal in America. The Bureau could hardly consider the party to pose an actual espionage or sabotage threat at this point, and its actions only further underscored Hoover's concern with the Communists' political, rather than potentially criminal, behavior. To this end, the use of counterintelligence techniques offered certain advantages over previous legal strategies such as prosecutions under the Smith Act: the Bureau could now focus on the political aspects of subversive behavior without obtaining the required legal justification and could act with considerably greater efficiency (a significant number of FBI informants had exposed themselves by testifying in Smith Act cases).
Second, the Bureau's establishment of a formalized counterintelligence program met no political opposition, even when the executive and legislative branches learned of its existence and activities. At several points, Hoover briefed the attorney general and other Cabinet members about the types of activities carried out under COINTELPRO-CPUSA.60 While his reports were far from exhaustive, they clearly indicated the programs' counterintelligence nature. To Eisenhower's Cabinet, Hoover supplied the following background description of the FBI's activities:
[The] program [is] designed to intensify confusion and dissatisfaction among its members. . . . Selective informants were briefed and trained to raise controversial issues within the Party. In the process, they may be able to advance themselves to high positions. The Internal Revenue Service was furnished the names and addresses of Party functionaries. . . . Based on this information, investigations have been instituted in 262 possible income tax evasion cases. Anticommunist literature and simulated Party documents were mailed anonymously to carefully chosen members.61
While, as we will see, the Bureau's insularity from other branches of government allowed for the later establishment of COINTELPROs against a broad range of political actors—including various civil rights groups, the Puerto Rican Independence Movement, and student antiwar protesters—COINTELPRO-CPUSA was established with at least the tacit approval of key officials in the Eisenhower administration, as well as both liberal and conservative congressional leaders.
Such broad-based approval was possible largely because COINTELPRO was framed as a battle against subversiveness, which implicitly signaled that the threat was tied to a foreign power. In the mid-1950s Cold War climate Communist infiltration of domestic institutions was perceived as a very real threat. Conservative factions in Congress therefore supported any policy that served to root out this Red menace, even at the expense of citizens' civil liberties. For many liberals, the repression of "Communists" was a harder sell, but with the alternative being HUAC hearings and with the McCarthy debacle fresh in everyone's memory, using the FBI to root out any potential subversive threat seemed the lesser of two evils. As a result, so long as the threat appeared tied to a hostile foreign power, the Bureau was now able to act in the absence of any real political opposition.62
And act it did. By the end of 1956 the party was reduced to only four thousand to six thousand members, and the Bureau was actively proclaiming COINTELPRO a success (though not successful enough to justify its disbanding).63 In 1961 Hoover sought to utilize the methods that had proven so successful against the Communist Party against a second target, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The SWP had formed through a series of maneuverings resulting from the Communist Party's expulsion of Trotskyites in 1928. After reforming themselves first as the Communist League and then as the Workers Party, many of the CP outcasts emerged as the SWP in 1936.64 The group took a strong stance against World War II and not surprisingly drew the attention of the Bureau, which actively sought "to obtain from book shops, informants and other sources whatever written materials existed about the SWP."65 In 1943 such evidence was used to help convict eighteen of the party's members for violating the Smith Act. Throughout the 1950s the Bureau continued to monitor the group's activities through wiretaps and burglaries of members' homes and offices.66 Hoover officially initiated a COINTELPRO against the group on October 12, 1961, stating in a memo to field offices that the SWP
has, over the past several years, been openly espousing its line on a local and national basis through the running of candidates for public office and strongly directing and/or supporting such causes as Castro's Cuba and integration problems arising in the South. The SWP has been in frequent contact with international Trotskyite groups stopping short of open and direct contact with these groups. . . . It is felt that a disruption program along similar lines [to COINTELPRO-CPUSA] could be initiated against the SWP on a very selective basis. One of the purposes of this program would be to alert the public to the fact that the SWP is not just another socialist group but follows the revolutionary principles of Marx, Lenin and Engels as interpreted by Leon Trotsky. . . . It may be desirable to expand the program after the effects have been evaluated.67
The program against the SWP was established within the Bureau and without consultation with then attorney general Robert Kennedy. Because Kennedy had been briefed on activities related to COINTELPRO-CPUSA and hadn't raised any objections,68 Hoover assumed that the Bureau had the green light for engaging in similar activities against the SWP. The key similarity, of course, was that both groups seemed intimately tied to hostile foreign powers and were thus, by definition, involved in subversive activities. At this point COINTELPRO had not broadened its scope to include battling domestic threats that could not be traced to Communist interests.69 However, the assumed threat posed by a Communist infiltration of various mass organizations gave the Bureau leverage to investigate a wide range of domestic groups that it deemed subversive. Most notably, under the guise of their susceptibility to infiltration, various civil rights groups came under the watchful eye of Hoover and the Bureau. Every major organization associated with civil rights actions in the South, along with the New York-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was investigated and monitored on a regular basis, and Martin Luther King Jr. in particular became the subject of an extensive counterintelligence effort by the Bureau.
The campaign against King sheds considerable light on the Bureau's methods. The official impetus for investigating King was his association with one-time Communist Party financial backer Stanley Levison.70 The Bureau was immediately suspicious that Levison, through his friendship with King, was seeking to manipulate the latter's activities to advance the CP's interests. Reinforced by King's periodic public criticism of the FBI, the Bureau's maneuverings against King soon looked in some ways like the Director's personal vendetta. For his part, Hoover exhibited extreme personal distaste for King, attacking both the civil rights leader's alleged Communist allegiances and his personal conduct. The personal and the political were often conflated, and it was typically the latter that shaped Bureau activities. In 1964 Hoover publicly labeled King the "most notorious liar" in America, and soon thereafter the Bureau carried out perhaps its most malicious action against the civil rights leader: the delivery of an anonymous letter to King accusing him of being an "evil, abnormal beast" and suggesting that he commit suicide before his "filthy, abnormal fraudulent self" would be exposed to the nation. Exposure, in this case, would take the form of Bureau-compiled tape recordings allegedly documenting his extramarital sexual activities.71 But though such attacks were profoundly personal, their overriding justification remained King's susceptibility to the influence of Communist Party-affiliated advisers.
A similar logic justified Hoover's orientation toward the entire Civil Rights Movement, whose organizations were considered dangerous primarily because of their alleged connection to Communist interests. While the FBI never convincingly established this connection,72 gathering this sort of evidence was not the point—the real issue was the Bureau's assumption that members of the movement would be easy targets of Communist infiltration. Despite this framing of black activists as easy prey for (presumably more intelligent and savvy) Communist agitators, a formal COINTELPRO against civil rights groups would not come until 1967. By that time, the movement's emerging emphasis on militant, sometimes violent, action and black power allowed the Bureau to treat "Black Nationalist/Hate Groups" (the FBI's umbrella term for these targets) as threats to national security on their own terms, whether or not their actions were tied to Communist activity. Again, however, Hoover required some precedent for establishing a counterintelligence program to disarm a purely domestic threat. Such a precedent, with the added benefit of broad-based political support, offered itself in 1964 with the spate of violence against civil rights workers—and specifically the killings of Freedom Summer workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney in rural Mississippi—attributed to the Ku Klux Klan.
The outcry for effective action to prevent such terrorist violence was largely directed by the FBI. Although the Bureau had—despite its reluctance—successfully investigated the murders of the three Freedom Summer workers (see chapter 2 for a more detailed account of the case), liberal members of Congress sought action against Klan groups that would halt such violence. Counterintelligence activity against white hate groups was something that these liberals embraced, since they could not depend on local or state police (or the FBI's investigative divisions, for that matter) to prevent acts of violence against civil rights workers. Fundamentally, the liberal political community likely supported a "hard-hitting FBI campaign to infiltrate the secret Klan orders" for lack of any other effective way to reach and prevent Klan violence.73
In this climate the Bureau initiated COINTELPRO-White Hate Groups on September 2, 1964. The program initially targeted nineteen right-wing organizations in the South, most of them Klan-affiliated groups, and sought to
expose, disrupt and otherwise neutralize the activities of the various Klans and hate organizations, their leadership and adherents. . . . The devious maneuvers and duplicity of these groups must be exposed . . . through the cooperation of reliable news media sources. . . . We must frustrate the effort of the groups to consolidate their forces or to recruit new or youthful adherents . . . no opportunity should be missed to capitalize upon organizational and personal conflicts of their leadership.74
For some observers the establishment of this program, at a time when the Bureau was also actively monitoring and disrupting the very civil rights groups that the Klan opposed, was puzzling. I explore this issue further in chapter 4, but at this point it is important to understand that COINTELPRO-White Hate Groups served the larger function in the FBI of broadening the range of groups that could justifiably be thought of as "subversive" and therefore suitable targets for counterintelligence programs. No longer did a subversive group have to be controlled by or intimately tied to a hostile foreign power; hereafter, domestic targets engaging in "criminal conspiracy" and willing to undermine the Constitution warranted a disruptive response from the FBI. The larger significance of COINTELPRO-White Hate Groups is therefore the fact that it served as a template for later COINTEL programs against domestic targets. While the Klan was embraced as a target by a liberal constituency, the targets of the later Black Nationalist/Hate Groups and New Left programs were not. However, largely through the liberal support received for COINTELPRO-White Hate Groups, Hoover and the FBI achieved sufficient insularity and autonomy to establish counterintelligence programs against domestic targets without the approval of Congress or other actors outside the FBI.75
As the decade wore on, Hoover initiated two additional COINTELPROs. The first was the program against "Black Nationalist/Hate Groups," which began on August 25, 1967. This program was designed to target a wide range of individuals and organizations; the Director's initial memo specifically named the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), Deacons for Defense and Justice, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and Nation of Islam. Its stated purpose was, not surprisingly, to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supports, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder." More specifically, Hoover recommended that participating field agents publicly expose the "pernicious background of such groups, their duplicity, and devious maneuvers"—taking care to ensure that "the targeted group is disrupted, ridiculed, or discredited through the publicity and not merely publicized"—and that they exploit "organizational and personal conflicts of the leaderships of the groups and where possible . . . capitalize upon existing conflicts between competing . . . organizations."76
Over time the central target of this COINTELPRO became the Black Panther Party (BPP), which originated in Oakland in 1966 and had over twenty nationwide chapters by 1968. The repression of the Panthers marked the most savage incarnation of COINTELPRO, as a Bureau-engineered conflict in Southern California between the group and black cultural and nationalist figure Ron Karenga's US organization resulted in the murder of four Panthers in an eight-month period in 1969 (which the Bureau's San Diego field office listed as a positive "tangible result"77). Soon after, Chicago-area Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were gunned down early in the morning by fourteen police officers working under the Cook County Sheriff's Office, whose actions had been organized in conjunction with the FBI. William O'Neal, Hampton's bodyguard who was also a Bureau informant, had supplied the FBI with the floor plan of the Panther house that was used to plan the raid. Police fired close to one hundred shots, which with possibly one exception were unreturned.78 In between the California and Chicago incidents, Bureau agents sent anonymous letters and ridiculing cartoons, as well as utilized informants, to foster factionalization among the BPP leadership.
The Bureau's final COINTELPRO was initiated against the New Left on May 10, 1968. Noting that "our Nation is undergoing an era of disruption and violence caused to a large extent by various individuals generally connected with the New Left," Assistant Director William C. Sullivan—the architect of this particular COINTELPRO—proceeded to define the somewhat nebulous target as those "activists [who] urge revolution in America and call for the defeat of the United States in Vietnam."79 Soon, hundreds of groups and individuals, many of them on college campuses, were the targets of Bureau counterintelligence actions. I deal with the dynamics of this program in detail in later chapters, but it is important here to note that Hoover, oddly enough, was by this point the leading voice for restraint in the counterintelligence field, at least within the central national policing agencies. President Nixon's coordinator of security affairs, Tom Charles Huston, had in mid-1970 convened a "working group" consisting of top officials from the FBI, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, and military. The goal was to recommend actions to stop the advance of movements that threatened the stability of the government, with a special focus on the New Left.80 In the paranoid climate that dominated these meetings, Hoover became the (relative) champion of civil liberties. The "Huston plan," as the group's policy statement came to be known, recommended eliminating restrictions on mail openings, wiretaps, state-initiated "surreptitious entries," and the use of minors as informants, mandated by Hoover in 1966. The committee cited "no valid argument" against the use of such tactics other than "Mr. Hoover's concern that the civil liberties people may become upset."81 For the first time in Hoover's long tenure, his capacity to handle domestic threats to national security was being challenged. Huston was explicitly critiquing the Bureau's intelligence gathering, calling it "fragmentary and unevaluated" and recommending that it be stepped up considerably.82
Huston's ally within the Bureau at this time was none other than FBI Domestic Intelligence Division head William C. Sullivan, who had become both increasingly wary of the "subversive" threat posed by the New Left and increasingly critical of Hoover's refusal to take more drastic steps to prevent dissident activities. Such criticisms of Hoover would lead in 1971 to Sullivan's forced retirement from the Bureau, but a year earlier he saw Huston's plan as an opportunity to circumvent the Director in his efforts to revitalize the counterintelligence field. Hoover was the nominal chairman of Huston's Inter-Agency Ad-Hoc Committee, but Sullivan was the only Bureau official present at its drafting sessions. The document that the committee ultimately produced was heavily criticized by Hoover, who insisted on including footnotes detailing the Bureau's disapproval of most of the committee's recommendations. Specifically, Hoover was strongly opposed to the proposed creation of a permanent interagency committee; he had always preferred the Bureau to act autonomously, a tendency heightened by his recent break with the CIA over its investigation, simultaneous with the FBI's, of a Czech-born University of Colorado professor's disappearance.83 As a result of the CIA's refusal to cooperate with the Bureau to Hoover's liking, he had cut off FBI liaisons to all federal agencies other than the White House, and he wasn't about to change this policy now. Despite Hoover's disapproval, the Huston document was approved by the Ad-Hoc Committee, though Hoover was later able to kill it by informing Attorney General John Mitchell (whom Huston had strategically kept off the Ad-Hoc Committee) that the FBI would not undertake any counterintelligence actions mandated by the committee without receiving explicit approval from the president's office. As the Huston plan's entire objective, from the executive's perspective, was to allow for the initiation of such acts without legally implicating President Nixon, Hoover's final gambit was effective.
Though Hoover framed his criticisms of the Huston plan in terms of civil liberties, it is clear that there was more to the story, as the Bureau was still actively working against all of the Huston plan's targets through its COINTELPROs. While he was willing to harshly repress political radicals, Hoover refused to have the Bureau take the fall for actions mandated by a committee that included other federal agencies. In effect, he would have to authorize—and thus be responsible for—each agencies' illegal acts. Thus, his real objection was two-pronged: the Bureau's professional reputation would be in serious danger if the Huston plan was somehow leaked to the public, and Hoover himself would be putting his neck on the line for the very intelligence agencies from which he tirelessly sought to insulate the Bureau in the first place.84
So despite Hoover's recognition that the threat of civil liberties' infractions might have real consequences if made public, the FBI continued on with COINTELPRO, including the program against the New Left that Huston had deemed "grossly inadequate."85 COINTELPRO-New Left, along with each of the other programs, would have a short life, however, as Hoover's worst nightmare was realized when the Bureau's activities were finally exposed to the public in 1971.86 The key event that precipitated this disbanding of all formal COINTELPROs was a break-in at the FBI Resident Agency in Media, Pennsylvania. On March 8, 1971, while many Americans were fixated on the outcome of that night's Ali-Frazier fight, a group of activists calling themselves the "Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI" burglarized the Bureau's files. The Resident Agency was renting space in a four-story office building, and the burglars reportedly had little trouble entering the office or its cabinets filled with confidential files.87 Those involved in the break-in took several hundred pages of files and then passed them to another group that sifted through the memos before giving a select set to a third group that reproduced and gradually leaked them to various media outlets in the succeeding weeks. These files provided the first public disclosure of a range of Bureau activities against targets such as the Black Panther Party, the Venceremos Brigade, the Philadelphia Labor Committee, Students for a Democratic Society, and college students with "revolutionary" leanings. Immediately striking was the Bureau's disproportionate focus on left-leaning individuals and activist organizations. While the Media files did include the FBI's investigation of organized crime and the Ku Klux Klan, close to 99 percent of the captured files dealt with leftist or liberal groups.88
The immediate negative publicity that resulted from the public disclosure of the Media files caused irreparable harm to the Bureau's carefully cultivated public image. More concretely, it quickly led the Bureau to consider disbanding the COINTEL programs, which had long hinged upon their insularity from the American people and other branches of government. On April 28, 1971, Assistant Director Charles Brennan sent a memo to William Sullivan (his immediate superior) suggesting that the FBI drop COINTELPRO as a formal classification but that similar activities be continued "with tight procedures to insure absolute secrecy."89 The following day Hoover sent a memo to each field office terminating all formal COINTELPROs.90 More than three years later, in November 1974, the Bureau officially acknowledged and apologized for its past actions against domestic targets. This acknowledgment was spurred by a series of COINTELPRO-related disclosures stemming from NBC correspondent Carl Stern's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in 1972. The Justice Department had finally released particular documents to Stern in December 1973, and this disclosure eventually led to a hearing before the Civil Rights and Constitutional Rights Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee on November 20, 1974. While the subcommittee condemned the Bureau's actions, there has been little tangible fallout from the COINTELPRO era, with most attention given to vague promises of FBI reform by succeeding Bureau Directors.91
Given the FBI's fairly consistent century-long mission of stifling political dissension through intelligence and counterintelligence activities, why should we focus on the 1960s and, in particular, COINTELPRO? From an historical standpoint, the tumultuous sixties remain strong in our collective memory. While some vilify the more contentious actions of the period, others continue to celebrate the cultural and political upheavals that led to the emergence of mass movements centered on promoting civil rights, questioning and protesting against the Vietnam War, and also calling into question the very legitimacy of key American institutions. Seemingly for everyone, the sixties are a cultural touchstone. Even today, when young college students express frustration at the perceived political apathy of their peers, the model they use of a nonapathetic student body harkens back to the Woodstock generation. And justifiably so, since the era was defined by a remarkable confluence of issues that engaged a broad cross section of society.92 But while the rise of these political challenges is often celebrated, their decline is less well understood. We can certainly point to the organizational shortcomings of various activist groups and even their inability to deal with success, but the repressive actions of authorities undeniably played a significant role in the demise of various movements by the early 1970s.
Repression of dissent emerged from multiple sources, including local police departments, national policing agencies, and the court system. But perhaps no organization had as clear a mandate to suppress dissident threats as the FBI with its COINTEL programs. While the Bureau, as we have seen, engaged in counterintelligence activity throughout the twentieth century (and certainly continues to do so in the twenty-first), COINTELPRO was unique as the only program set up solely to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities" of protest groups that, in the FBI's view, engaged in actions that threatened the security of the United States.93 While the insularity of the Bureau ensured that the public was unaware of the existence of COINTELPRO, the theft of Bureau files in Media, Pennsylvania, and subsequent release of particular COINTELPRO documents in 1971 led directly to the disbanding of the program just as public pressure was mounting to disclose details about COINTELPRO's existence. Carl Stern's successful Freedom of Information Act suit provided some insight into the scope of the Bureau's counterintelligence activities, and a host of subsequent FOIA requests and Senate subcommittee inquiries resulted in the release of over fifty thousand pages of COINTELPRO memos. These memos became easily accessible to the public in 1977, when they were collected on microfilm by Scholarly Resources, Inc.94 While it is impossible to determine the proportion of memos that have not been released by the FBI,95 one encouraging sign of their relative completeness is the fact that, when read together, the files compose a coherent narrative, strengthened by considerable cross-referencing of proposals and actions. With few exceptions, I have been able to piece together the sequences of information and actions that compose the repressive activity under COINTELPRO. Of course, it is possible that certain (likely severely disruptive) activities were not included in the files at all and instead were carried out face-to-face, over the telephone, or under a different, more highly classified memo heading. However, there exists no obvious way to determine the extent to which this is the case and no way to gain access to this "top secret" information in any systematic manner.
Beyond the potential for unreleased files, the FBI also censored information within files released to the public deleting passages to preserve the "interest of national security" or to avoid interference with law enforcement proceedings.96 The elimination from certain files of entire paragraphs that presumably discuss particular actions against targets can harm attempts to classify Bureau activities. More often, however, the deletions obscure only the names of informants and, in some cases, particular targets (though the targets' group affiliations are generally uncensored).97 Even in instances in which entire paragraphs or pages are censored, it is sometimes possible to recreate the missing pattern of events, since these are generally referred to in multiple memos (i.e., a particular event sequence would often be discussed in a series of related proposals, memos conveying information about specific target-related events, and quarterly progress reports submitted by each field office). Often information that is censored in one memo is included in later summaries. The criteria used to censor memos varied over time as the state developed differing interpretations of "threats to national security" with the change of presidential administrations. Statutes were periodically revised to allow the FBI more or less freedom to censor documents as it saw fit. Fortunately, the COINTELPRO files were released in 1977, a period marked by an extraordinarily lenient (relatively speaking, of course) censorship policy.98
More generally, the FBI's COINTELPRO files provide a unique opportunity to examine an organization's allocation of repression. The Bureau's highly bureaucratic focus—its insistence that every potentially relevant piece of information be fully documented—means that these files constitute an extraordinarily complete record of FBI counterintelligence activities during the COINTELPRO era. As I discussed above, the Bureau's engagement in counterintelligence neither began at the outset of COINTELPRO in 1956 nor ended when the program was formally disbanded in 1971, but the COINTELPRO era marks the only period when all such activities were concentrated in a single program. Thus the initiation of counterintelligence through a single organization's resources allows us to examine how the process of repression unfolded over time. Additionally, the entire COINTELPRO era occurred prior to the amended Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts in 1974. These acts entitle any person to access his or her own Bureau files unless those files contain information exempted from release due to national security concerns.99 Prior to the existence of FOIA (during the entire COINTELPRO era), there was no definite sense within the Bureau that any of its files would be seen by anyone in the general public. Therefore, there was no attempt to be anything but candid within memos, and no perceived reason to use Bureau "code" to conceal the true nature of activities.100 To be sure, particular actions have been censored when documents have been released to the public, but (as I discuss above) the vast majority of actions have escaped censorship. The Justice Department fought vehemently, though unsuccessfully, to have FBI files exempted from FOIA for the sake of "national security" and released documents related to COINTELPRO only when forced to do so through a court order. Presumably, similar counterintelligence activities carried out since the passage of FOIA in 1974 have been documented with the awareness that the records will likely be viewed in the future by those outside the Bureau. Consequently, the comprehensive, straightforward reportage of actions and interchange of ideas have likely been affected by this recognition. The COINTELPRO era thus serves as a uniquely clear snapshot of state repression during a particularly tumultuous period of American history.
Finally, studying COINTELPRO can yield insight into the allocation of state repression generally. Almost thirty years ago, Isaac Balbus noted that there existed no coherent theory of repression in the liberal state, and relatively little has changed since.101 Most ideas about how states repress hinge upon the assumption that the allocation of repression is a largely rational response to perceived threats to the status quo, with state response proportionate to the intensity of the threat faced.102 While such opposition-reaction models have (at least implicitly) dominated our thinking about the allocation of state repression, it is important to realize that the extent to which states act rationally and predictably against external threats is an empirical question rather than a starting assumption. Often even a cursory examination of a regime's history quickly leads one to doubt whether repression always follows the emergence of a viable threat to state power. It is clear that the FBI continued to intensify its repression of the Communist Party even when the party was on the verge of collapse, and this "irrational" use of repression was certainly not an isolated exception. William Stanley, in his examination of state repression in El Salvador, finds that "much of the internal violence by states in Latin America has been unnecessary, counterproductive, and grossly out of proportion to the actual challenge to the state's authority."103 To understand such discontinuities, I argue in the following chapters that we must focus on the organizational structure of repressing agencies themselves.104
While COINTELPRO, as an organization solely designed to disrupt any group or individual it deemed a threat to the status quo, is ideal for this sort of examination, it also allows us to expand our sense of what constitutes state repression. While we have long been aware that policing agencies employ undercover agents, send anonymous letters to create factions within and between movement organizations, and "encourage" negative publicity to discredit these movements, standard measures of repression almost always focus on its overt, reactive forms: the number of protesters arrested or how often policing agencies become directly involved in violent acts against protesters. Such measures provide a poor proxy for tangible repression faced by protest groups. A considerable proportion of policing activity is not in reaction to protest but instead seeks to proactively defuse groups perceived as threatening to established power relations. The patterning and intensity of these proactive forms are not necessarily correlated highly with the allocation of overt, reactive repression. Ends can differ considerably, as well—proactive, covert repression often has a profound effect on movements since its goal is often not to prevent or control a particular protest action but instead to contribute to the collapse of the movement itself. Omitting this sort of activity from studies of state repression thus constitutes a source of significant bias in our understanding of repression and its effects on individual activists and protest groups. Directly studying the FBI's COINTEL programs allows us to overcome this bias by examining how policing organizations allocate repressive activity as well as how covert actions impact protest targets.
In this book I show that to understand the outcomes of COINTELPRO, we need not focus primarily on the characteristics of its targets nor on how the FBI interacted with dominant social elites. To do so would lead to the inevitable conclusion that the Bureau's actions lacked any overriding logic,105 as the threats that were objectively largest (in terms of a targeted group's size, level of activity, or association with violence) rarely received the brunt of COINTELPRO repression and after 1964 J. Edgar Hoover had effectively insulated the Bureau from the concerns of political and economic elites. Instead, I argue that the FBI's allocation of repression makes sense only through an examination of organizational processes within the Bureau itself. More specifically, by focusing on how information about protest activity flowed through the FBI, I explain how repression was allocated against a wide range of protest targets. However, despite the overall focus on processes endogenous to the FBI, we need to be sensitive to the context within which the Bureau's counterintelligence activities emerged, as well as to create a basis for understanding the interactive relationship between repression and protest. To these ends, chapter 2 introduces the movements that were the central targets of COINTELPRO-New Left and COINTELPRO-White Hate Groups, namely Students for a Democratic Society and the United Klans of America.